BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Central America’s years of neglect of agriculture, poor water management and lack of planning to help farmers cope with climate change are worsening food shortages caused by a widespread drought, aid agencies say.
At least 2.5 million people in four countries – Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - are struggling to feed themselves because a severe drought has shrunk harvests and raised food prices, weakening the fragile food supply, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) says.
The worst affected area is the "dry corridor" running across the region, which is also its bread basket.
“The dry corridor is an area very vulnerable to climate change, and is home to mainly subsistence farmers who largely depend on corn and bean crops and temporary labour in the coffee sector,” said Miguel Barreto, the WFP’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“The situation facing Central America’s dry corridor is very serious indeed. A prolonged drought affected this year’s first harvest and a crisis from last year in the coffee sector caused by roya (coffee leaf rust) across Central America meant fewer seasonal coffee pickers were hired,” Barreto told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Panama City.
Honduras has declared a state of emergency along its dry corridor where the government estimates 114,000 families need food aid in 97 of the country’s 298 municipalities. In neighbouring Guatemala, the government has declared a state of calamity in 16 provinces. Both countries have asked the international aid community for help, Barreto said.
Tens of thousands of families in the region, many of them subsistence farmers, are now relying on government and WFP food handouts and food to work programs to survive and put food on the table.
“The situation can get worse. If the drought continues we may face a humanitarian crisis at the end of the year,” Barreto said.
Poor rainfall has led to a fall of up to 80 percent in food crop harvests in some parts of Central America.
“In about two weeks time, we won’t be able to make tortillas because we don’t have any corn or beans, which were lost in the last harvest,” subsistence farmer Fidelina Hernandez, who lives in the dry corridor in southern Honduras, recently told local newspaper El Heraldo.
DROUGHT, SHORTAGES A RECURRING PROBLEM
Drought and subsequent food shortages are a recurring problem in Central America’s dry corridor.
“This is a … disaster that’s been repeated over many years,” said Francisco Pavon, Oxfam press officer in Honduras.
Though millions of poor farmers in rural areas depend on agriculture for their food and livelihood, successive governments have failed to invest in rural development, he said.
More needs to be done to implement a long-term agricultural policy that helps small farmers improve crop yields and access loans for seeds, fertilizer and equipment, and to help farming communities cope with the extreme and erratic weather brought by climate change.
“The Honduran government needs to go from responding to the problem to prevention. There’s no state policy to deal with the impact of climate change in the long term … Public funds need to be invested to strengthen the resilience of farming communities in the face of drought, but they are virtually non-existent,” Pavon told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
BETTER WATER MANAGEMENT
A key challenge is to improve farmers’ access to water at times of drought, for instance by building more water wells run by farmer cooperatives, and find better ways of using and harvesting rainwater, he added.
Governments in Central America should also encourage small farmers to grow crops that are less dependent on large amounts of water, the WFP said.
“Small farmers are too dependent on a mono-agriculture of corn and maize. Governments need to increase access to water systems and help farmers grow other crops like mangoes and avocadoes that need less water,” Barreto said.
(Editing by Tim Pearce; email@example.com)